By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2000 Gourmet Magazine
IN THE 1950s, when George Markham was a student at Henderson County High School in western Kentucky, he fell in love with fried chicken. It didn’t hurt that his school just happened to be across the street from a restaurant called The Colonels’ Lair, named for the school’s football team, The Colonels. The Lair was run by a man named Bill Koch—known as Bilko because that’s the way he pronounced his name—and everyone from those days agrees that Bilko made the best fried chicken anywhere. In the state where Harland Sanders began a fried-chicken empire based on the secret recipe he used in the kitchen of his service station/café, such judgments are not made lightly.
Bilko’s chicken was different from Colonel Sanders’. It was infused with a marinade of cayenne and garlic that penetrated to the bone, and it was encased in a dark, brittle crust nearly as salty as a potato chip. Dark or light meat, Bilko’s chicken delivered like none other. “He dinged around with different spices for a long time,” recalls Donna King, who worked with the Koch family at The Colonels’ Lair for 11 years. “When he first started making it, it was really, really hot. People would cry when they ate it—but some of them liked it and wanted more! He finally got the cayenne down to where everybody could eat it, and I guess we sold a million pieces of chicken.”
In 1983 the Koch family moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where Bilko cooked and served his chicken in a small casino off the strip. Then in 1996 a tragedy happened. In a car on their way to a family reunion, the Koch family was hit by a semi trailer; all but Koch’s daughter Sherry, who was traveling in another vehicle, were killed.
Koch’s legacy lives on, however, in George Markham, who never forgot Bilko’s chicken. When Koch died, Markham was already in the restaurant business. A few years before, he’d bought the Bon Ton Mini Mart on old Highway 41, just south of Henderson, from a woman named Mary Spence. Spence had opened the convenience store in the mid-1970s with a plan to sell kitchen staples, household goods, seed-company caps, and basic automotive supplies. But soon she installed a few breakfast tables and started offering biscuits and gravy in the morning. Local farm workers and construction crews enjoyed eating at the Bon Ton so much that noonday meals were added to the menu, and by the early 1990s, the Bon Ton was known for its fine plate lunch.
The Bon Ton’s cook was none other than former Colonels’ Lair employee Donna King, and good fried chicken was part of her repertoire. But it was not Bilko’s chicken. “I didn’t know how to make it,” Donna confessed recently with some embarrassment. “I had the formula at one time, but then I lost it!”
Markham, who’d been a meat cutter and had sold groceries but had never run a restaurant, was delighted that King was at the Bon Ton when he arrived. “She kinda came with the furniture,” he says with an affectionate smile. “And she knew a whole lot more about running a restaurant than I did.”
But he did know to take out all the shelves of the mini-mart and put in more tables. “People were coming in hungry to eat but having to wait, whether it was 100 degrees outside or 20 below zero,” he says. “We had only four booths, which wasn’t nearly enough. So I bought more tables and changed the place from 50 percent restaurant to 100 percent. Now all that’s left from those days are the work gloves, candy, and bags of chips.”
And, of course, King. With Markham at the helm of the Bon Ton, King saw an opportunity to do her own remodeling. “It used to be all wood paneling in here,” she says, “dark and gloomy. I wanted to lighten it up. I had a color mixed, a pretty pink one. But once I got it on the walls, it looked a whole lot pinker than it did in the can! George walked in one morning and said, ‘What the heck are you doing with these walls?’ I said, ‘Just wait till I get through. You’ll like it.’ I found curtains that match perfectly, and a nice blue for an accent in the kitchen. And you know something? This pink-and-blue combination is really very relaxing. I still get teased about it by the regulars, but it makes a nice calm atmosphere to start the day.”
Although the doors to the Bon Ton open every morning at four, King’s day begins at 1 A.M., when she comes in to start breakfast, bake cakes, make biscuits, and cook vegetables for lunch. “What we do in this kitchen is not opening cans,” she says. “It’s cooking.” Fried apples, hash-brown casseroles, scalloped potatoes, and big, sheet-cake desserts made with bananas and strawberries are just some of the down-home dishes she makes.
About four years ago, Markham and King got to reminiscing about Bilko’s chicken and thinking how good it would be to have some again. King had remained friends with the Koch family when they moved away and had kept in touch with Bilko’s surviving daughter after the accident. One morning when Markham walked in, she said to him, “Send me to Las Vegas. I’ll bring back that fried-chicken recipe for us.”
In Nevada, King and Sherry Koch mixed 200 pounds of spice mix according to Bilko’s original formula. “I arrived home from Nevada at the airport at five o’clock in the morning with nobody to help me and all these buckets of seasoning to lift,” King remembers. “Somehow I ended up with it in my car and brought it home. I did it for the Bon Ton, but I also did it to help Sherry and to keep her daddy’s memory alive.”
To most of those who have never tasted the Bon Ton’s fried chicken, the first bite is astonishing. Like aged country ham, it might seem almost too intense: spicy, salty, crunchy all at once. But as tongue-shock settles, taste buds crave more; and after a few bites, one’s whole world very quickly shrinks to nothing other than this amazing fried chicken and the need to devour every edible morsel of it.
The Bon Ton Mini Mart is so small and out of the way that many residents of Henderson have no idea it exists; but old-timers who remember The Colonels’ Lair found out about the return of Bilko’s chicken fast enough and spread the word. Now chicken lovers from all over western Kentucky have made the pilgrimage to the south side of Henderson a habit. “One of the ladies who comes in asked me what I put in it,” Donna says, chuckling. “She says, ‘It’s a drug. I know it’s a drug because I have to have it every day.’ I tell her there are no drugs in it, just spices.”
Because of limited refrigeration space, the Bon Ton can keep only one case of chicken parts marinating at a time, meaning that supplies sometimes run out. “You want to see some angry customers?” George Markham asks. “Come here one day at noon when there isn’t any more chicken. You’ve never heard such squawking!”
“You all goin’ buffet?” the waitress asks as she sets down suites of silverware (each wrapped in a paper napkin) and a pair of sauce pitchers on the table of our booth.
In the tradition of an old-time southern pig-pickin’, the buffet at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Kentucky, is spectacular. It occupies its own dedicated room, with meats and vegetables on one side, salads and desserts on the other. Never have we dipped a plate when there wasn’t an employee replenishing ribs or dabbing drips of ham-cabbage hash off the counter.
What’s special about a western Kentucky barbecue buffet is the variety of meats. Most of America’s serious barbecue scenes specialize in just one kind: beef sausages in East Texas, pork shoulder in South Carolina, ribs in Chicago. In Owensboro, they’ve got it all, and at Moonlite, it is all good. There are chicken and ribs and pulled pork, even a pan of non barbecued sliced country ham that is firm and salty and fits so well into Moonlite’s buttery dinner rolls, with maybe a dab of sorghum. (Beyond meats, we’ll just mention the impressive deployment of “vegetables,” including cheesy broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese, creamed corn niblets, ham and beans, and butter-drizzled mashed potatoes, plus the western Kentucky soup/stew known as burgoo.)
The beef brisket is sensational. It is sliced a half inch thick and has a chewy crust blackened by hours in the pit. But the interior is butter-soft, with some quivery veins that appear to be meat but that are so infused with long-cooked fat that they literally melt on the tongue in a torrent of pure, noncorporeal meat-smoke flavor.
Mutton puts Owensboro barbecue in a class by itself. Cooked until pot-roast tender, it is set out on the Moonlite buffet two ways: chopped or pulled. Neither has sauce on it; you apply your own at the table from the pitchers the waitress brings. One is a dark-orange emulsion with gentle vinegar-tomato zest; the other is called “mutton dip,” an unctuous gravy that is used to baste the mutton as it cooks. For those who need heat, Moonlite also supplies bottles of “Very Hot Sauce,” which is brilliantly peppered and will set your lips and tongue aglow. But we recommend sampling this meat sauce less. The chopped mutton is pulverized to nothing but flavor: tangy lamb and wood smoke in a bold hash duet. The pulled version is a textural amusement park—rugged and chunky with a lot of hard outside crust among soft, juicy chunks of interior meat that fall into shreds so supple they make us want to abandon all utensils and eat like happy cave dwellers.
Bon Ton Mini Mart (permanently closed)
2036 Madison Street